How did you first come to start working in the Mississippi Delta? What has continued drawing you back since then?
My first working trip to the Mississippi Delta was in 2006. I had pitched a story idea with a reporter friend of mine working at ASAP, the now-defunct youth-minded subsidiary of the Associated Press. We wanted to check-in on the world of Delta blues in the age of the iPod and see where things were at. The resulting story ended up being a decent travel piece on a place where little had changed since folklorist traveled there in the 50′s to record and “discover” blues musicians. This is what the editors wanted, but we repeatedly came across a story more nuanced and compelling within the younger generation. We wanted to return to explore the “ball ’til I fall” culture of Mississippi rap and hip-hop, influenced by the same deep poverty and entrenched racial divides that has always existed there. But this is not a story you can do right with a single two-week visit.
With this in mind, the reporter and I applied for the Lange-Taylor prize through the Center for Documentary Studies, pitching a story about Greenwood and the intense paradox of the upscale downtown and the nearby poverty-striken Baptist Town. It was the one place on our journey where the elements of that region’s challenges and other-world-ness really came into sharp focus. We didn’t end up getting the grant money and I never made it back, but I was really glad to see the work that Matt Eich started doing there a couple of years later and continues to do there to this day. It’s a story that really needs to be shared and I’m glad that he has the support and dedication to do it justice.
In May of 2007 I did return to Clarksdale for the ADP workshop there. The group was a wonderful mix of folks and we all stayed in the bus station downtown. I was able to pursue some contacts that a writer shared with me. She had lived there for several years and wrote an insightful book, Let The World Listen Right, about hip-hop and rap culture as it compares to the blues in the Delta region. Her contacts were quick to accept my presence because of her word and I ended up camping in a tent outside of town for two more weeks after the workshop ended. It was an intense experience over all and I felt that I learned a lot of things that have informed my career ever since.
Mostly, I felt a shift in perspective on the idea of producing community-focused storytelling in far-flung places. There were a lot of things that I struggled to relate with as a person, as a photojournalist, as an outsider operating from a place of privilege, creating representations of life there. It’s a tall order to fill and it takes a heightened degree of mindfulness and dedication that I’m not sure I fully possessed at that time. I was very stimulated by the visual landscape, the people, the experiences and I wanted to leave with a story full up and done. It took some time in processing everything to realize that you stand to gain more by moving at a more measured pace, both in your expectations and in your conclusions, when you are working in a place foreign to you. That may sound a bit convoluted and vague, but it’s the best I can do to articulate one of the most valuable lessons that I learned there.
I have not been back to Mississippi since 2007. I have stayed in touch with a few folks there, but my interest and focus has been in documenting life in North Carolina. Increasingly, especially in long-form pursuits, this has been through documentary filmmaking. It’s a medium that seems to communicate a more complete sense of a person and place to me. One of the best representations of life in the Delta is a film called Ballast. Though it’s fictional, the sense you come away with, of a complex and dark history blending with a stark view of the future, is haunting and very similar to my own impressions of the region.
How do you feel that working locally and in a more calculated manner has allowed, or even helped, your work to grow? Do you find difficulties in working on projects that are so close to home?
There are a million stories in your own backyard. There are also a lot of good friends, growing social engagements and daily responsibilities that can be pretty damn tough to distance yourself from in order to give the necessary time and dedication a great story requires. You have to be willing to make the time, to say no, and in a earnest way that will drive you onward. Once you get to that point, it becomes a remarkably fulfilling way to schedule a day. You can take two hours and spend that with a subject or in a place; engaging, creating, building up relations and then return to your house to do that second load of laundry. But then there is tomorrow. And the next day.
You end up having to play off two opposing forces of human nature, the desire to be comfortable and the desire to create. For example: it’s really fucking early and I love sleeping next to my wife, but there’s a guy stoking the flames beneath four blazing racks of barbecue in the pale blue light of dawn that will soon fade away to the stark blast of the morning sun. Damn near every time that I’ve pulled it together, drove past the pause for comfort and for routine, I have been joyfully fulfilled by an experience that further piques my curiosity about what’s happening just a few miles from my home. Working at a print publication like the “Independent Weekly” does a great deal to help me find my footing here. It’s a good dose of that ‘deadline-orientated’ mentality that I thrive on. There are folks I don’t want to let down and an idea we’re all working toward that’s bigger than any one individual. Of course, there’s also the risk of getting locked into the daily grind, of not looking past the assignment to the bigger picture. Which is why it’s also tremendously helpful that I rotate out of the position with another photographer each month. This ‘job-share’ model is one that I think more publications should be implementing. It keeps your staff fresh and it creates another self-motivating idea; making enough freelance money to carry you over until the next month. You’re also grateful for the interesting assignments and non-wedding related events when you return.
When you endure a few seasons in a place, especially walking or riding your bike around, you start to get a sharp sense for the rhythm of life and the history beneath your feet. Someone finally tells you why that dead end street seems so out of place or you learn that on Sunday afternoons there’s a huge international pick-up soccer game at the park where you can find the best home made tamales and you might be able to jump in on a game if you are lucky. This is where you live, where you’ve personally experienced a range of emotions. If you are trying to tell someone else’s story who also lives there, it will naturally have more to do with how that person perceives their place in the world and less to do with the physical qualities of the place itself. Your photographs are informed by the place and more representative of the person. We’re visually minded people with a strong attraction to the exotic qualities of a new place or, as documentarians, the first brushes with an unfamiliar culture. This attraction can drive your curiosity but it can also have a negative influence on the process. There are a lot of challenges to overcome in creating an accurate representation of another person’s life, mostly checking your own sense of class and privilege and allowing another person’s perspective to inform your own. When you engage in this practice close to home it ends up challenging you to be more mindful to your everyday surroundings and the stories in your own backyard.
Having said all of this, it’s still a whole lot easier and enjoyable to feed off that buzz of being somewhere new. Photography can be a very impulsive exercise and the rewards of reacting to that rush are nearly instantaneous. In my tenth year of picture making, I’ve increasingly found the payoff from a familiar and deliberate view to be far more rewarding and longer lasting.
The new project that you’re working on, Vittles, seems like a very natural step for you. You’re working on short films in your town about food and friends and screening those stories alongside food and friends. How did this project start? How are you reaching out to the community with the work?
I’ve always wanted to make films. Growing up I would make all these fictional shorts with my friends, just playing around with my dad’s JVC camcorder and editing in camera, playing the soundtrack on a boom box nearby. We were emulating the movies we loved and using technology in ways that we could understand. I love imagining what kids are doing now with just an iPhone. There are so many was to create and watch films now and the same can be said for photographs. In 2011 alone, Americans took 80 billion photos. That’s an insane amount of images.
Any damn way, when I was an undergraduate student at Southern Illinois University my initial focus was in the film program. Right away it wasn’t what I expected. There was going to be a lot of theory, then eventually we were going to shoot on 16mm film, but that would required a lot of students working together and, yes, a good bit of money that I didn’t have. Fortunately an advisor mentioned that there was a visiting photojournalism instructor, Phil Greer, who had just left the Chicago Tribune as DOP and wanted to give back to the profession he loved by teaching. So I signed up. Bam! I was out shooting, listening and involving myself in the lives of strangers and loving every second of it. I told myself that I would get back to filmmaking someday, but instead I wanted to focus on telling stories one frame at a time.
Several years later I acquire this crazy 35mm digital SLR that also does 1080p HD video. What a game changer, the Canon 5D Mark II. It’s incredible. I’m back to where I began, with a technology that I can share with friends and use however we wish. That’s also the trouble too, eh? You’ve got to find a focus, a clear purpose for investing what ends up being a crazy amount of time into a doc film production. You’ve got to commit to it all the way through the post-production process. Financial support is also essential. Around the time I left school a lot of newspapers spent an ass-load of money on expanding their photo departments to do video because, “that’s where things are headed and we’ve got to do now to stay alive, damn it.” A perfectly valid reason no doubt, but when you try to cover everything as you would with photography, churning them out stuffing them onto a busy-ass website one after the other, it becomes unsustainable rather quickly. I think a lot of hard lessons were learned and everyone is still looking for the right model to make the venture financially viable.
Vittles came out of a desire for wanting to produce a web-based film short documentary series that could retain its own authorship while being produced through a larger publication, like a good column. The Independent Weekly, where I work, was supportive of the idea we started up in earnest in August of 2011. Of course we blew right through all the deadlines we set and quickly ran through the small budget we had managed to squirrel away for the project. We also came up against the same old questions, “What is the edge that video has to offer a print publication? Are we just saying the same thing as the adjoining article, at four-times the cost? Do readers translate into viewers? Our approach to the funding model was not all that different either. It needed some serious work and we still very much wanted to peruse the idea, which meant a lot of straight-up bootstrappin’ scrappy filmmaking until the wheels come off or we figure this thing out.
While I can’t say that we’ve figured it all out, we’ve certainly learned a helluva lot. It’s definitely been a labor of love. When you do it on your own stubborn terms, with people who stick it out and believe in an un-funded idea, real bonds are formed. The idea of backyard screenings came out of this sense of, “Well, we’ve put it online for free and Vimeo says that 2,400 people have watched it. I wonder what they think about it?” The idea of folks watching it at home, alone on their laptop seemed a waste of potential. Then we wondered, “Would those view pay to see the same thing if other people, beer and good food were included?”
The challenge is being able to screen the films in a way that doesn’t diminish the value of them, like having a shitty projector or fighting the chugging roar of a gas generator. So now we’re raising money to acquire our own killer A/V set-up and also looking to pair up with local theaters to screen there as well. The funding model has shifted to more of a traditional feature documentary model, where we have a signature project, like The Farmer Veteran Project, and we build up a donor base around that to help complete it and support our other, smaller, short documentary projects. We’re seeking out humanities grants, having funding dinners and a KickStarter campaign, all of that. We found a great fiscal sponsor in The Southern Documentary Fund to provide us with a 501 (c)(3) status and financial independence. The Independent Weekly remains our in-kind media sponsor, providing us with a great space to gather and work, plus time away from our regular posts. Our recent KickStarter campaign for The Farmer Veteran Project was successful beyond our expectations. This last image is from a film project that I’m also really excited about, mainly because I’m working with my wife, Kavanah, and it involves a story where spinach casserole helps lead to de-segrigation. See what else Vittles is up to and if you’re interested, submit a story idea or finished project.